new orleans jazz
Day Four Sunday June 29th
Amy's favorite for brunch, Cafe Cherrier, with Amy, Becca, and Michele. I don't have to walk a dozen blocks to my own favorite for brunch, Eggspectation, now that they've opened another creperie on the corner of Place des Arts.
Almost to the minute at 6, thunder rumbled, and rain fell just as the quintet of guitarist Reno de Stefano started playing. I hate umbrellas but I needed to be under to write notes for the judging, but I didn't have much to write. Most of the groups in the competition are younger players, but all the cats in DeStefano's quintet are jazz vets, or, as I noted, "grown-ups." They've been around. They know how to play tunes on the changes hiply. They swing. They can't win the prize.
Avi Granite 6 is a definite contender. Even as they walked out, I could see the "thing" was about to happen. Granite plays guitar with a front line of alto, tenor, and trombone. They played out but tunefully right from the jump, and the groove from the bass and drums was always propulsive. Each of the players was a solid soloist. Granite himself played guitar as if playing beyond the strings, as if playing the very electricity of the amp. They often looked quite serious yet were often whimsical, especially the trombonist. Avi Granite 6 is the group to beat.
Woody Allen played to the multi-thousands of the big hall, Salle Wilfrid Pelletier. I wondered if so many came because they expected him to be funny. Except for saying hello and saying they'd be playing music from New Orleans, he was there to play clarinet. When he first played, he was squeaky, he articulated notes somewhat awkwardly, and some in the audience tittered, thinking maybe he was being funny. He was not. Woody Allen is a tremendously adequate clarinetist, but he plays with considerable spirit, as do they all in what was called Woody Allen and His New Orleans Jazz Band. They played and sometimes sang (everyone but Woody) blues and songs from the 20's. When they whipped up the second line, Woody's clarinet sounded best and truly soared above the romping and stomping. Woody thanked everyone, said this was his first time ever in Montreal. "Playing this music for you was a treat for us," he said. And at the finale, the multi-thousands stood and roared for more. "I don't think they expected a reaction like this," said Michele. Woody and the guys came back out, nodding thanks, and Eddy Davis, banjoist and the actual leader of the band, nodded his head toward the bandstand. So they played not only more, but a lot more, including an ecstatic "Saint Louis Blues."
We were in a room overlooking the big GM stage on the Place and, even in the rain, the crowd was dancing to a reggae/funk show called Jamaica to Toronto. Michele lives in Portland, so she's used to the rain. We walked through the "spitting" to the Club Soda, but as we passed one of the tents for SIMM, the festival's free Salon des Instruments de Musique de Montreal, 50 or 60 folks were thundering on hand drums. Steve's Music Store in Montreal was conducting a drum-along. Everyone who came in, including us, was handed an African hand drum and welcomed to join in the rhythmic rumble. Invigorated from the drumming, we came to Club Soda for one of the midnight shows. This was where, two years ago, as I wrote in the piece I posted on the WBGO blog last week, I realized how much jazz is re-defined at the Montreal jazzfest. You can hear the full-tilt New Orleans trad of Woody Allen and then hear the electro-klezmer-hip-hip of the group Socalled. I'm not kidding: klezmer rap. I was the oldest in the house, but, as always in Montreal, I was game ...
This photo of B.B. King and Clarence Gatemouth Brown was taken at the 2005 New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival. It's from "Last Days of Fame," a powerful piece of photojournalism by Jennifer Zdon.
Gatemouth and I shared a birthday, though we were separated by half a century. I first met him at WWOZ in New Orleans. He sat in our tiny on-air studio, his head buried beneath a black Stetson, his hands wrapped around a small pipe. The occasional waft of an illicit substance. This must explain the fact that, as Michael Bourne once discovered, Gatemouth Brown loves to eat grape jelly on everything...including steak. Strange things happen.
In 1999, I attended the Public Radio Program Directors conference in Memphis, Tennessee. The Peabody Hotel, as I recall, where mallard ducks marched through the hotel hallway (led by a man in a tuxedo, suggesting penguin not duck) and climbed a flight of custom-made steps into the lobby fountain. This was part of the hotel's daily schedule. Strange things happen.
I went to BB King's Blues Club on Beale street one night. Gatemouth Brown was performing live. WBGO and JazzSet were broadcasting the show. NPR's Bettina Owens threw a huge party to celebrate the fact that this concert was NPR's first live webstream! I had no relationship whatsoever with any of this, other than kid spectator. One year later, however, I was working on an NPR show. And the next year, I started working at WBGO. Strange things happen.
Meet Paul Barbarin, one of the most important people in the history of New Orleans music, and the "how" we call jazz.
The Barbarin family constitutes one of the original lines of Creole musicians who were present at the creation of a new music. Paul's father, Isidore, played the alto horn in The Onward Brass Band, one of the early traditional brass bands in the city.
Before I moved to New York, I used to work at WWOZ in New Orleans. I started as a volunteer, operating the board for a woman named Betty Rankin. Every Saturday morning, while most people my age had hangovers from Friday night, I was in a tiny peach-colored building in Louis Armstrong Park, playing LPs, cassettes, and the occasional CD for a lady who wanted no business with those details. She spent her ninety minutes as "Big Mama," the host of "The Moldy Fig Jam." I was 22, and this was the most amazing radio I had ever heard in my life. She told stories about every jazz musician in the city who had ever picked up an instrument with the purpose of playing traditional New Orleans jazz.
As it happened, Big Mama was an associate curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive. She handled the extensive oral history of New Orleans' music, and she knew both the collection as well as the musicians' whose lives she had helped to document. On any given Saturday, she talked about Paul Barbarin as if he were in the studio with us. It was the beginning of my post-college, real world education. On one such occasion, it was the first time I had ever heard his song, "Bourbon Street Parade." She told her audience about the street parades, how Barbarin kept that tradition alive. In the 1960s, he revived the Onward Brass Band, the name of the group that his father played a part. In fact, Paul Barbarin died in a parade, leading the band. [While I'm no fan of death, that's a great way to shuffle off this mortal coil.]
Years later, on the cusp of 2002, I was the field producer for NPR's Toast of the Nation. We're at the Village Vanguard, with Michael White and The Original Liberty Jazz Band. Hear them play "Bourbon Street Parade" from that evening.
When I hear this song, I remember how I got this far into jazz. Because I live with music.
PS Watch the video of Paul Barbarin's funeral. The musicians are playing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
Watching that is knowing why New Orleans matters. Onward.